Navies Calm Dangerous Waters Beneath The Political Storms

US Navy officer on board the PLA-Navy's aircraft carrier Liaoning, October 2015. Photo credit: People's Daily.

THE RECENT ‘FREEDOM of navigation’ passage by the US Navy’s destroyer, the USS Lassen, through the Spratly islands was sandwiched between a visit by 27 US naval officers to the PLA-Navy’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (seen above), and the first visit by the PLA-Navy to an East Coast US Navy station when three PLA-Navy warships of Escort Task Force 152 led by the guided missile destroyer Jinan called at Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida.

That was far from the first visit by Chinese military officers. The chief of the PLA general staff, General Fang Fenghui, toured of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego in May last year. Also last year China was invited for the first time to participate in the biannual RIMPAC exercises, the 22-nation maritime warfare drills organized by the US Navy’s Pacific fleet.

Beyond the political rhetoric, military-to-military cooperation between China and the U.S. is on the rise, and particularly between their respective navies over the past two years.

Military-to-military contacts have long been a staple of U.S. diplomacy to prevent wars of words becoming anything more deadly. They build trust and transparency between two groups of professional military men who often have more in common and more respect for each other than they do with and for their political masters.

China and the United States undertake similar technical contacts in the realms of trade and financial affairs. The military contacts, however, and especially the naval ones given the increasing political tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea, have raised concerns in the U.S. Congress that they are yielding too much military information to the PLA without restraining Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions off its shores and beyond.

Fang’s visit, in particular, raised questions of whether the US Navy had broken Congressional rules that forbid exchanges with China that could involve ‘force projection’. In December, Randy Forbes, the Virginian congressman who heads the seapower and projection forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the civilian bosses of the Pentagon calling for a review of America’s current military-to-military engagement policy with China.

Forbes’s letter did not fall on entirely deaf ears. Attitudes towards China in many parts of political Washington are hardening to a degree.

There is no evidence that those shifts are being felt among the military, although they will keep a weather eye out for shifting political winds. And the Pentagon continues, if perhaps slightly more circumspectly than before, to pursue the so-called new model of military-to-military relations between the two countries that reflects the broader framework of a relationship that China wants to put more on a partnership footing.

The Obama administration let President Xi Jinping write the rubric for that — “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” It is language that Washington is showing less enthusiasm for now than before. But it is the tone that is changing rather than the overall narrative.

The working model is now cooperation where interests overlap, careful management where they do not. As relations go through a rocky patch, the priorities are avoiding accidents that turn into crises and establishing lines of communications if they do happen.

The risk is real. Last year a PLA fighter buzzed a US Navy plane, coming within 10 meters of it. The year before, a Chinese amphibious transport vessel escorting the Liaoning forced the USS Cowpens, a guided-missile cruiser, to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

That there have been no further mishaps is down in part to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, known by its acronym, CUES, that China, the United States and other Western Pacific nations agreed last year. The Code sets out ground rules for safe speeds and distances that vessels should keep, the language to be used in communications between navies, and actions to be taken in case a ship becomes disabled.

However, the rules do not apply to coast guard or other civilian vessels such as fishing boats. Nor are there enforcement mechanisms.

A third issue is that the rules apply “at sea.” They do not specify it that means international and territorial waters, or just international waters, which makes the disputed waters of the South and East China seas huge grey areas.  Washington and many other regional nations do not recognize Beijing’s maritime territorial claims.

It is the same disagreement as Washington and Beijing have over the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), to which the Code is subservient.

Nonetheless, any code is better than none. Even the process of creating it was a confidence-building measure in its own right, as is the joint practice drill on using the Code that the two navies held in February. The USS Lassen was warned by China using the CUES protocols when it sailed passed the Spratlys last month.

Beijing and Washington signed a further bilateral memorandum of understanding that was a follow-up to the Code and in October this his year added a codicil. The two countries have also set up a military crisis hotline.

Is this all enough to prevent anything untoward happening? Probably not if one side or the other is set on a deliberately provocative act or even if a citizen-patriot becomes recklessly overzealous. But it does provide an often overlooked counterpoint to the currently testy political narrative.

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